Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Not-So-Creepy Joel (Spooky) Cook

It's getting close to Halloween now (shh, I know it's a month an a half a way. Just let me have this.), so it's wonderful to have Joel Cook on my blog. I personally love Halloween and creepy (but not too creepy) artwork -- especially if that artwork is for kids. Joel balances both the creepy and the fun (and some of his work now isn't creepy at all). Joel has a lot of tips and stories to share in his interview.

Dani: Is there something that lead into creating Picture Books?

Joel: I always loved illustrations and art being used as the vehicle for a story. Ever since I was little, I loved comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, puppetry…and extensions of that: action figures, video games… To me it was such a great idea. Good art could carry a terrible story… But even a great story had trouble if the artwork was sub-par.

In middle school, and high school I created comic strips. My friend Shane and I had a series of notebooks that we would trade back and forth. I would write/draw 5 pages or so… then I would give him the notebook, and we would take turns. Shane sent me a few of those notebooks last year, and they are pretty entertaining!
In college, that continued with a job as editorial cartoonist for the college newspaper, as well as work in self-published comic books. It felt great to be making money (I say money, but in reality it was probably pennies) for something that I loved. Some of my best and most cherished memories from my life to date are times I spent creating something. When putting together my studio, I tried to capture that feeling… and my studio space is something that my teenage self would approve of. It’s my man cave, I guess.

When I moved to Texas from Wisconsin, I taught elementary art for three years. We had a few authors and illustrators visit, and I was lucky to meet a local author, Vuthy Kuon, who asked me to work on a book with him called “Mikey and the Monster Vacuum.” From there I collaborated with him on a few books and eventually got some work on a few others.

Growing up, I never thought I would work on children’s books. I always had my eyes on making comic books. But the genres overlap, and it’s great to see people like Skottie Young, Jake Parker and others that succeed in both… and to know that it is POSSIBLE. I remember getting in trouble by teachers for reading comic books when I was young. I remember my parents taking them away. It is so amazing to see them in libraries now, and to see multiple sections of them!

Dani: What draws you to creating scary art for kids?

Joel: It’s always funny when I am asked that. I don’t think I have scary art. I grew up loving horror movies, and monsters and alien invasions and robots. Maybe it’s in my blood. My goal is not to scare anyone. It might just be “what I do.” I remember someone telling me that my art “might be too scary for children’s books.” But then I got a contract to do some monster books. So I don’t know.

There are a lot of talented illustrators out there whose work is “scary” … like Stephen Gammell, … even Ralph Steadman has done some children’s books. I think there is a place for art that can visually, be a little frightening.

I find that some of the most beautiful books I am reading now, are books that tackle topics that children wrestle with. I think books like Wolf Erlbach’s "Duck, Death and the Tulip”

and Stein Erik Lunde’s "My Father’s Arms are a Boat” are amazing books that tackle difficult subjects with grace and beauty.

The funny thing is that right now I am working on a couple things, both of which are certainly not scary (ok, maybe a little... if you are allergic to bees).

Dani: How do you know the correct balance of scary/cute in Picture Books?

Joel: I’m not sure. I don’t think there is a science to it. I think that even a scary character can be lovable. It’s in the action, the expression, and the way the character is written and designed. Look at Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” or Donaldson’s “The Gruffalo” … Both have creatures that are scary, wild. But Max controls the Wild Things, and the Mouse uses his wits to survive. Yet in both creatures are tamed, yet when left to their own devices, may have been pretty scary.

I think the approach is to know your audience, and let the story guide your hand.

Dani: What is your favorite part of illustration?

Joel: I actually have two:

1) Character Design: The place where the world is wide open, and you can make as many variations as you wish. This is the most fun for me. Seeing all the possibilities and places that your brain can take you. I try to make 20-50 designs of a character before I get the right one. When it ends up looking like I am holding a casting call in my sketchbook for a character to play the part, I know I am doing it right.

2) Signing a book: This may sound weird, but I have my heroes in the illustration and comic book world. Some I have been lucky to shake their hand, get an autograph or a piece of art. I absolutely love drawing a picture for someone in a book, because in the end, we don’t make these books to please or entertain ourselves. We do it for others, and especially children, to enjoy.

Dani: How do you approach creating dummies?

Joel: I do a lot of sketches, and then do more sketches. I think that the dummy approach is fairly the same for everyone. When tackling my own stories, I try to make sure that the illustrations round out or expand on the world that our characters inhabit. Simply being a narrative of the story is not enough. The art has a power to go above and beyond what the story says. It gives us a glimpse into a much larger world that we may never see all of.

I try to make the art drive the reader, to take them from this page to the next: The art should carry the story without words, because if the story has to carry the art, it may need to be rethought. I usually try to a have a page or two that are close to polished, to give viewers a sense of what the finished product would look like.

Follow Joel:

Joel's Books:


  1. Thanks for the great interview and I love those crows! :)

  2. Creepy but cool. I think I'l start doodling creepy Stuff for Halloween.

  3. I know you don't just do spooky artwork, but I just love the creepy stuff the best. It's just got this eerie beauty to it. Your work is fantastic and I look forward to seeing more books of yours in the future. Even if the books aren't so scary. ^_^ Thank you for this spoooookkkkky post!

  4. Cool drawings. Thanks for sharing such personal thoughts.

  5. Thanks for having me, Dani... It was an honor!


  6. Thanks for having this artist share with us, Dani. It's nice to know that there's a place for spooky in children's lit.

  7. Love your crows here!!! And the spooky is good. Looking forward to your books. Thanks for sharing.